Just as sunset began to twinkle in through UNC-Chapel Hill’s Moeser Auditorium windows, the Chapel Hill Philharmonia took its massive force to the stage for an evening of melodically-charged works historically known for their sensual tones and “voluptuous melodies” – a term that appears and reappears throughout music history in writings by critics and historians. While not all the pieces on the program were particularly “sensual,” they all featured lush harmonies supporting strong and captivating melodic movement, resulting in an emotionally-charged and exciting evening of music.

Emmanuel Chabrier’s España Rhapsody was first, opening with lively, enthusiastic motion inspired by the composer’s trips through the Iberian Peninsula in 1882. The rhapsody draws on rhythmic idioms from traditional Spanish and Andalusian dance music, employing colorful techniques, like string players using col legno bowing (hitting the strings with the wooden backs of the bows) for percussive effect. The large orchestra sounded great on loud passages, especially España‘s strong ending, but had some issues throughout the program with intonation and timing across the ensemble.

The rest of the first half of the program featured winners of the Young Artist Concerto Competition, who also received cash prizes for their stellar auditions. Tim Rinehart, a junior at Chapel Hill High School, performed the Allegro movement of Serge Koussevitzky’s Double Bass Concerto in F-sharp minor, Op. 3, after a transition to a smaller orchestra. His singing, melodic playing was masterful, utilizing much of the range of the instrument but really showcasing the upper strings. Rinehart could have benefitted from more amplification than he was given, as some of his amazing tonal projection was lost under the supporting orchestra, which was not tuned very well in relation to either their soloist or each other. It sounded like the ensemble was struggling to play softly under the soloist, and intonation suffered as a result.

The other soloist was Andy Dai, a sophomore from East Chapel Hill High School, who performed the Allegro from the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K.466. After a tedious transition in which the ensemble again shrank, and several members struggled to drag out a piano to the front of the stage, wheels wailing the whole way, the musicians not playing swarmed the aisles and unoccupied seats with instruments in tow so as to hear Dai’s fabulous playing. It took several moments for the newly arranged ensemble to tighten up their tempos and intonations, after which they struggled with a few of the first entrances after the soloist began. Dai, who acted more as a collaborating pianist in these moments, eyes trained on conductor Donald Oehler, played delicately at first until the opportunity arose to dazzle with virtuosic intensity. His treatment of melodic lines was deft and strong; while he could have also benefitted from some extra amplification, he could always be heard in balance with the orchestra. The woodwinds and brass stepped up their game to add sparkle to the accompaniment and the strong ending, after Dai’s flashy, jaw-droppingly complex cadenza, which was dense but incredibly precise and enthusiastic.

Following intermission came the Symphony in C, D.944, by Franz Schubert, nicknamed the “Great” Symphony after its immense length in relation to another Schubert symphony in the same key. This massive piece is a complex, epic dive into sophisticated playing that even professional musicians struggle with; it was probably not a strong choice for this ensemble, though they approached it with admirable aplomb. Movement I’s French horn opening was confident, and excitement gently began to build through nice interchanges among the sections. Again, some timing issues emerged across the ensemble – the full orchestra was back so it may have been the sound phasing across a large space – but transitions and intonation was much better. The Andante movement began with a clash, not all members being able to enter at the right time together, but the treatment of melodic lines was passionate and lush. The famous Scherzo movement was all a bit loud, but the players were obviously having a lot of fun with it. Strong brass moments, as well as clarinet, flute, and oboe features punctuated the violent lines with delicate inserts.

Eventually…the Finale. This symphony is nearly an hour long, and the ensemble was out of tune and seemed very tired at this point. Repeated swells and falls made them rein in their adrenaline, which kept causing tempos to fluctuate. That said, the brass got its second wind (no pun intended) and emerged strong and sonorous, while the woodwind choir’s quotation of the “Ode to Joy” melody, a nod to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the epitome before Schubert of the epic symphonic work, was charming.

This huge program was taxing on these musicians, but their commitment and enthusiasm was palpable. The audience seemed appreciative of the undertaking, and Oehler’s silent fist pump to the orchestra after its final chord was telling of the level of achievement these dedicated members had reached. It’s always inspiring to see people doing something they are truly passionate about, and even if it isn’t the most polished effort, when they have tried their hardest it can still be truly gratifying.